Thoughts on debating

World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC) Berlin 2013

The World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) is going on right now in Berlin, with more than a thousand very talented students from all over the world testing their arguments and wit — and having a rather good time after hours as well. (You can watch the live stream of their debates here.)

They asked me to give the opening speech on Friday, with some thoughts on debating. Nothing too heavy.

A grainy video is attached below. (I start after the, yes, Alpine horns, at about minute 9.) But here is a shortened and approximate transcript of what I said:


Patrick just told me that The Economist is considered “the debater’s bible”. Wow. I had no idea. When you catch me in the halls later, maybe you can explain to me why that is.

Right now, I want to make only 4 simple points:

  • Debating is fun
  • It helps to be British
  • Thou shalt remember Athens
  • Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth

1) Debating is great fun.

I spend my whole life debating. At The Economist, every conversation we have is really a debate. In my family every conversation I have is really a debate. Especially with my children.

Let me tell you about a particular kind of debate we have at The Economist that you can’t know about because it’s not public:

The Monday morning meeting.

This takes place every Monday morning, when the various section editors read out the list of planned stories. We sit very casually, often on the floor, around the desk of our editor in chief. After the lists are read, we discuss what the Leaders should be. “Leaders” is our name for opinion editorials. So we talk about what they should say. Basically, we debate.

When I joined The Economist in 1997, this was the event of the week, the institution, that most inspired me. Because it was such a joy to listen, and to participate:

  • The humor,
  • the reductio ad absurdum,
  • the overstatement
  • the understatement.

 I’ve learned so much just from sitting in those Monday morning meetings. And I hope that you guys here also get to sit in rooms like that, perhaps even here in Berlin in the coming days.

And that leads me to my second point:

2) It helps to be British. 

I mean that a bit tongue in cheek. But in my experience, it’s sort of true. The level of debate in those Monday morning meetings is probably the highest anywhere, and part of the reason must be that most of the people in the room are British.

Several politicians here in Germany have told me that they like to watch House of Commons debates on YouTube, because the debating there is at a much higher level than the debates in the Bundestag. And I’ve heard similar statements in Washington DC and Sacramento CA and other places.

Part of it is, I think, that the Brits have that tradition more than any other culture in world history.

For the British upper classes, part of growing up has always been to speak in front of people, and to use humor and charm, so that when those people later grew up they seemed to do public speaking naturally. 

In other modern countries, I think you’d have to go back to the debates between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to get anything of that quality. Then again, those two Americans were really ALSO Brits. 😉

Now, I’m NOT British. And most of you are NOT British. But that’s OK. Because we can learn from them. Fortunately, their language is now our common world language.

3) Athens

Before Britain, there was of course ancient Athens. And I think a quick look back at Athens is a great way to make my other two points about debating.

First, the Athenians demonstrated the inherent link between debating and democracy, or debating and freedom. 

What is a democracy?

It is basically a society that makes its decisions after lots and lots of debate, one in which power and influence therefore come mostly from skill at debating. As opposed to brute force, for example.

In Athens during the time of Pericles they applied that idea very literally: the free men of the city met physically on one large rock to debate every topic.

They had no “government” and no “opposition” (as you do in your debate format here) because they had a pure democracy, ie a rule of the people. The people WERE the government. And they had no parties either. So leadership came down purely to skill at public speaking. Whatever was decided on that rock after all the speakers had spoken was the law.

The greatest example of a leader was Pericles. And I strongly, strongly urge all of you to read his Funeral Oration, which is one of the greatest speeches ever written.

Athens during the following century, the fourth century, when Phillip and his son Alexander rose to power and threatened Athens, was another great example. 

At that time, some of the most consequential decisions in world history were taken as a direct result of the outcome of debates between, basically, two men: 

Demosthenes and Aeschines

Those debates culminated in the so called Philippics by Demosthenes against Philip. That was the same Demosthenes, and the same Philippics, that later inspired Cicero in Rome, and really every great speaker and debater since.

So that’s another suggestion I have for you here: read the short biography of Demosthenes by the Greek writer Plutarch. it’s fascinating, because the man had a speech flaw, so he made himself a great debater by overcoming his greatest weakness. He:

  • built himself a cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech.
  • He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out.
  • He recited speeches while running up hills.
  • went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves.
  • put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf.

 But Demosthenes more cautionary lessons for you debaters as well:

  • he was a coward in battle and fled the field
  • he basically led the Athenians into a wrong course against Philipp and Alexander, and
  • he ended by committing suicide after his life work had failed.

And that leads to my fourth and last point today: 

4) Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth.

We know this too from Athens, but of course also from all the rest of history and from our own times.

The best argument doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the best delivery wins.

By the way, it was Demosthenes who, when asked what the three main element of rhetoric were, answered: “delivery, delivery, delivery.”

We call that demagoguery instead of democracy.

That was the problem that inspired maybe the greatest works of literature ever, namely Plato’s dialogues. In those, Socrates argues against the Sophists.

The sophists were people whom rich Athenian fathers hired to teach their sons debating. 

You guys here would LOVE to have a sophists working with you.

Because the sophists could teach you to take

  • one side of an argument and win,
  • and then to take the other side of the argument and win.

And that’s what bothered Socrates. Because he believed, or hoped, that there really was some objectively better or more reasonable position. And to Socrates, THAT was supposed to be the purpose of debating. To find the best answer.

So Socrates hated the Sophists, and ridiculed them with his style of questioning. He thought the Sophists interfered with truth finding because they were only interested in delivery, delivery, delivery.

Socrates thought there was a good and a bad way of debating: 

  • the bad way was a debate where the debaters want to win. He called that eristic argument, after the Greek goddess of Strife, Eris, who started the Trojan War by leaving that Golden Apple for the goddesses to fight over.
  • The good way was what he called dialectic: a debate where the debaters all want to learn, rather than win. So in theory, all debaters end up with a position that none of them took at the outset. Someone starts with a thesis, the others bring up antitheses and so on and so on, until they arrive at a synthesis.

Well, Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian Jury of about 500 men after a truly terrible, but famous, … debate.

So there you are. Let’s recap: Debating is…

  • above all, fun.
  • And it is useful.
  • And it will help you in your career and your life.

But keep in mind that little voice from Socrates and Demosthenes: debating is not enough.

  • you still have to be brave,
  • you still have to love truth, and
  • you still need to know when to stop trying to win and starting trying to figure something out.

But not during this tournament. So now try to go and win.

Thank you.